In September 1979, at age fifty-six, writer and artist Arturo Benvenuti fueled up his motor home and set forth on what he knew would be an emotional journey. His planhis own Viae Cruciswas to meet with as many former prisoners of Nazi-fascist concentration camps as he could. He wanted not only to learn their stories, but to learn from their stories.
He met with dozens of survivors from Auschwitz, Terezín, Mauthausen-Gusen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Gonars, Monigo, Renicci, Banjica, Ravensbrück, Jasenovac, Belsen, and Gurs. Many of these men and women shared their memories with Benvenuti along with artwork they’d created during their internment with pencil, ink, and charcoal.
After four decades of research, Benvenuti presented these original black-and-white pieces in Imprisoned. This stunning collection provides visuals that oftentimes even the most eloquent words and sentences cannot convey.
In his foreword, chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi highlighted the importance of these reproductions, stating, “some have the immediate power of art; all have the raw power of the eye that has seen and that transmits its indignation.”
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About the Author
Arturo Benvenuti was born in 1923 in the northeastern Italian province of Treviso. He is a poet, painter, art critic and scholar, combining his social and environmental commitment with the promotion of art and photography exhibits around the world. He resides in Oderzo, Italy.
Primo Levi was born in 1919. He was an Italian Jewish chemist and award-winning writer. In 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz, where he remained until liberation in 1945. He is best known for If This is a Man, published in 1947. He passed away in 1987.
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KZ: A Resounding Echo Roberto Costella
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay, no one conjures our dust. No one. Praised be your name, no one. For your sake we shall flower. Towards you. A nothing we were, are, shall remain, flowering: the nothing, the no one's rose. — Paul Celan, "Psalm" (Trans. Michael Hamburger)
After August 25, 1944 — after Paris's liberation from the Nazi occupation — Pablo Picasso began painting The Charnel House, a complex work that is challenging to interpret, which rejects perspective references and spatial coordinates, intertwining bled and dismembered bodies, marked by dull grays and funereal whites — it is a tragic icon that metaphorically evokes the Spanish civil war, denounces the fierce slaughter (feroz matanza), incorporates the war currently in progress, indicating innocent victims, mutilated bodies, and broken limbs, as signs of an unhealthy and irreparable barbarism.
Painted after Guernica (1937) and before Massacre in Korea (1951), composed up to the first few months of 1945, and perhaps unfinished, The Charnel House depicts a massacre. In this same period, Picasso made the stark declaration that an artist is not "an imbecile who only has eyes [...] he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world [...]. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war" (Les Lettres Françaises, March 24, 1945).
Another Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, had already expressed his clear civic intentions in 1814, with the paintings The Third of May 1808 and the eighty-two etchings The Disasters of War (1810–20). To him, the desire for domination and aspirations to empire, producing nothing but violence, allowed for a handful of victors and many — too many — vanquished, almost always striking the defenseless. Truly, then as now, "the sleep of reason produces monsters," as well as unjustifiable, irreparable monstrosities.
If there exists no epic of war, nor does there exist an ethics that could justify treacherous armed interventions, and Honoré Daumier, in Rue Transnonain (1834), shows this in a lithograph depicting a family slaughtered in their sleep by Louis Philippe's militia. It is an image of a real event, a crime perpetrated to suppress a popular rebellion. Charles Baudelaire said of that raw image that it was not a caricature, but "history, reality, both trivial and terrible."
Thus starting in the early nineteenth century, a civic consciousness emerged in some artists that resulted in taking a deliberate stance to denounce or protest, and this also happened, albeit less explicitly, with Théodore Gericault and later, occasionally, with Henri Rousseau and James Ensor. In the early twentieth century, the statements grew in number and intensity, especially in the German tradition: the Die Brücke expressionists systematically criticized Wilhelm's totalitarianism, while George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann documented (like soldier-photographers on many fronts) the violence of World War I and then showed the harsh living conditions in postwar Germany; John Heartfield, active since the first postwar period and the creator of cutting photomontages, even gave up and Anglicized his real name (Helmut Herzfeld), repudiating the militaristic, nationalist, and imperialist "pale mother Germany," and later attacking Hitler and the Third Reich.
Picasso was no less political. For nearly two decades, even in occupied Paris, he mobilized by appealing to the responsibilities of the democratic artist, signaling a political emergency and civil urgency, invoking historical awareness and social consciousness against all totalitarianisms. Through political commitment, expressed figuratively as well as verbally, the Spanish painter placed the problem of the intellectual in the face of violence, of art in the face of death, of civilization and freedom in the face of human brutality. Picasso was neither the first nor the only, but the echo of his stance was vast and virtually without equal, thanks to his prestige and its fame. The Charnel House took on high symbolic value, becoming the astonishing revelation of a massacre and the terrible emblem of the latest, devastating, thirty years' war.
Moreover, any historical assessment of the twentieth century cannot ignore the negative centrality of the element of war, which, creating serious socioeconomic implications and new geopolitical dimensions, irrevocably marked and altered the conditions of existence for contemporary humanity. Increasingly technological, violent, and global, war traversed the century with heightened frequency: conflicts caused by reasons ideological and economic, ethnic and religious, revealed an unprecedented capacity for destruction and murder, especially as regards civilian populations.
Thus, many citizens and people of culture felt a need to bear witness, to reject and condemn this violence. One of them was Arturo Benvenuti, who, with the utmost humility, driven purely by idealism, attempted to do something by retracing, first in his mind and then in person, the most painful trials of the twentieth century.
It wasn't easy, because Arturo Benvenuti, born in 1923 in the period of the racial laws and the second worldwide conflict, couldn't have known — too young to understand and take action, but also too grown to remain indifferent and feel unrelated to it, and in the postwar era, too aware and sensitive not to begin some ideological reflection, not to think about political motives, ethical reasons, and life choices. As George Grosz, exiled in the United States, wrote in the 1930s: "At night I hear Europe, without a radio, from thousands of miles away, I hear screams of despair, I smell the scent of fire and of blood," so must Arturo Benvenuti have felt and thought, undoubtedly for years, about the drama of the camps and the latest "useless massacre." And if spatial distance wasn't able to mitigate Grosz's drama, temporal distance wasn't able to alleviate Benvenuti's malaise: a deep malaise, heightened by an unmotivated remorse, almost a sense of guilt, produced by the idea of not having been able to or known how to do enough.
In a poem he read in public, he berates himself, stating: "I did little. The life scattered / page after page like sand / blown over dry dunes / of deserted shores, / dead banks / where the sun bleaches / piles of gaping shells / and shorn claws / of crabs without marrow. / In vain the horizon reveals / pulsing sails / that will have me / a sailor no more; I gave in / to the blackmail of bread / in the course of spent swamps, / beneath a wrinkled sky / like the belly of old Megaera. / I'm surprised to find myself / with the bugbear of buried memories, / a tide that grows with the wind / the old dams crying out / the sums of giving and having. For a while I should fix / the sun on the edge / of its zenith, as if to frame, / in the fatigued autumn, an account that doesn't add up" ("Account," in Masiere, 1970).
An account that remains unresolved. And without any reason, realizing that Arturo Benvenuti — an impeccable accountant and banker for decades — devoted himself to producing culture with a strong ethical force: as a poet, he composed verses that were appreciated by Fulvio Tomizza and Biagio Marin and acknowledged by Samuel Beckett; he was an active painter supported critically by Giuseppe Marchiori; he engaged in archival research and aesthetic-historical analysis; he worked on photographing the social and natural environment of the Veneto region and the Istrian world of the Karst; he founded and was director of a museum, the Alberto Martini Art Gallery.
Hyper-critical and rarely satisfied, he even accused himself of insufficient social engagement, too little civil activism, stating that "letting do is the same as doing," and thus means being complicit and morally responsible. This is a weight — a burden — that long weighed on Benvenuti's conscience, but became the basis and the ideal push that gave led to the KZ project (the abbreviation and title of the Italian edition of the book, KZ, stands for Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp). It is evident that he struggled with it and took some time to work through these war traumas from deprivation and humiliation, fears and anxieties, displacement and deportation.
But an insistent, ineluctable inner need, slowly, led him back to that time, searching for the places, and ideally, the victims of the most tragic chapter of the twentieth century. His aspiration was to understand better, to see for himself and verify in person, and then, perhaps, create a memory that wouldstate a historical truth, nurture new civic awareness. On the original cover of Imprisoned, dedicated "to the innocent victims of barbarism in all times," Benvenuti included George Santayana's admonition that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Thus in September 1979, at the age of fifty-six, in his camper with his wife Marucci, Arturo Benvenuti began crossing the Via Crucis of the twentieth century: a sort of reparatory journey, a secular pilgrimage, whose stations were Auschwitz, Terezín, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald, after stops in cities like Vienna and Paris, Amsterdam and Belgrade, Stockholm and Geneva, London and Munich, Budapest and Krakow, Weimar and Prague, Copenhagen and Stockholm. And there he found veterans, met survivors, visited local history museums, public archives, public libraries, searching for visual testimonies of the camps.
Out of this came Imprisoned: Drawings from Nazi Concentration Camps (originally titled KZ, subtitled Drawings from the Nazi-Fascist Concentration Camps), which was published in April 1983 with a preface by Primo Levi. The 276-page book, with as many black and white photographs, reproduces drawings, almost all of which were made in the camps, by the internees themselves. It is drawn, occasionally painted material collected over the course of four years, and then arranged by Benvenuti himself, who found a press at the Cassa di Risparmio della Marca Trivigiana. The Treviso credit institution, taking charge of the collection, created a not-for-profit edition, in adherence to the editor's specific request.
Benvenuti, an artist and intellectual, excluded every poetic, pictorial, and photographic text that had been created and signed during travel: he decided not to add anything more, so that the internees' drawings stood on their own. He avoided imposing himself, combining original visual texts that were expressions of a condition that had been experienced and painfully endured, with later interpretations produced by an idiosyncratic experience of exploration, however it had begun and progressed. The meaning, value, and degree of truth would be different. It was a necessary choice, because this way the victims — the creators of these documents — received the most visibility and greatest respect: after all, for many, it was their final testimony.
Primo Levi's very clear introduction was enough to explain, grasping the particularity and originality of the visual text, recognizing that "until now a book like this one has been missing" and if "in describing these horrors, words prove insufficient," the drawings of Imprisoned, in contrast, "say what the word is not able to."
Thus the poems inspired by those places and written in those places were left out: Benvenuti had composed five, then he printed them in a pamphlet he distributed among his friends. We should recall, however, that in 2010, for the Holocaust Remembrance Day celebration in the City of Pordenone, the public library reprinted KZ — Poems, including Benvenuti's introduction that connects his writing to his "pilgrimages along the many paths of human suffering." They were "short compositions," i.e., essential and minimalist texts, with expressions of solidarity for the victims and admonitions to the perpetrators; there are poems written at Auschwitz, Terezín, and Mauthausen, and they constitute a statement of passage, an example of civic poetry, a testimony of mercy.
While he dedicates one lyric to the children of Terezín, his approach to the drama of the camps doesn't categorize, doesn't make distinctions or exclusions: all detainees, all victims deserve the same respect and are worthy of remembrance. To him, the extermination is a universal tragedy, and thus, without making distinctions of faith or ideology, origin or nationality, age or social status, he presents the images not according to theme, technique, or supposed artistic quality. And Benvenuti organized Imprisoned according to author (not subject or location), based on irreproachable alphabetical order (not national identity), in a choice that put ethics before aesthetics, perhaps creating a slightly unhomogeneous, even messy sequence. But unlike the tiles of a broken mosaic, this purposive disorder, by fully expressing, perfectly describing, makes the condition of life gone mad, without balance and security, into a possibility for relation and perspective. This was the only possible way to arrange the absurdity of a world dominated by homicidal madness, "absolute evil": essentially, this terrible collection of images, which without posture or logical continuity, presses on us, acts as a disturbing document and an unbearable charge against history.
The book that contains it would be full of life and rich with meaning if published in a new edition. Clearly it has been able to manere and monere — to resist and remind.
Over thirty years since its original publication, Imprisoned can aspire to greater diffusion — the time for it to be fully appreciated has come. Benvenuti, ever present and aware, has made his contribution and can finally observe, with the knowledge that he has saved images — and by extension, messages, experiences, people — that would have been otherwise destined to oblivion; he can be — must be — proud to have made a contribution of truth and civilization. As he wrote in his brief introductory note to Imprisoned, "Humanity continues to kill, to massacre, to persecute, with it has gone ruthlessness. [...] Behind the barbed wire of new concentration camps, it has gone on, humanity has gone on being suppressed. Most of all, this book aims to be — attempts to be — a contribution to the just 'revolt' on behalf of those who feel like they can't, in spite of everything, resign themselves to a monstrous, terrifying reality. Those who believe they must still and always 'resist.'"
Thus it is an ongoing commitment — struggle: the book documents and urges us to keep memory alive and consciousness alert, in the hope that "the memory of the tragedy of the camps [may] serve the cause of peace, because the future of all peoples is no longer marked by contempt for human life and dignity," as Nilde Iotti, then president of the Chamber of Deputies, wrote in a February 2, 1984, telegram in reference to the original publication of KZ. And on occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2015, K.Z., Disegni dai campi di concentramento nazifascisti, returned to print by Edizioni BeccoGiallo in Padua. Yet this is not a new proposition of stale stories, an act of nostalgia, since today there are so many reasons to reflect on the issues raised by the book: how many rights have been denied, how many abuses committed against anyone who is other, different, or weaker? How many calls to violence become, individually or collectively, subjugation?
Imprisoned was also reissued for this reason, maintaining the form and content of the 1983 book, with the aim of preserving its original idealist charge. Technically, however, the text couldn't be reproduced exactly due to the limits of the material, as an older book in black and white that wouldn't meet today's standards of quality. All of the drawings, as well as the pictures in color, had been photographed in black and white; the layout is from 1983 and permits few alterations to improve definition, contrast, or tone, and most importantly, makes it impossible to recover the original polychrome.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Imprisoned"
Copyright © 1984 Arturo Benvenuti.
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